Saying their voices weren’t being represented by Billings’ largest business organization, several local business owners Friday launched a new Chamber of Commerce — one opposing local sales taxes and other revenue increases sought to help the city.
“There wasn’t a final straw,” said Sam Loveridge, of the Yellowstone Area Chamber of Commerce. “I think for quite a long time business owners in the area felt their voice wasn’t being heard.”
The formation comes as Montana’s Legislature prepares to begin a new session this week. Loveridge said YACC plans to be there opposing some items that the Billings Area Chamber of Commerce and other business groups have routinely supported, such as a local option sales tax.
For several legislative sessions, chambers of commerce from Bozeman, Billings and other areas that serve as Montana destinations for shopping and events have advocated for voter-approved local sales taxes. The revenue would most likely be used to improve event facilities and repair the roads and other infrastructure that receive the wear and tear of out-of-town visitors, or so the argument goes.
YACC organizers don’t see local option sales taxes as necessarily beneficial and worry that visitors will spend less on shopping and services in destination communities if sales taxes claim some of their trip money.
There’s also the issue of the gas tax increase passed by the Montana Legislature in 2017. The Billings Area Chamber of Commerce was one of the many groups supporting the increase, which over eight years raises the state’s 24-year-old gas tax of 27 cents to 33 cents. Supporters said the increase would lead to a bigger federal match for highway construction projects. Some of the money also goes to city and county roadwork.
Better roads were a community improvement the Billings Area chamber and other non-government business organizations supported.
But not all businesses were thrilled about the increased gas tax, Loveridge said. Trucking and delivery companies spend enough on fuel daily that the increased cost spread over a year was enough to discourage hiring another employee, he said.
YACC’s priorities published Friday included “free market solutions; not more taxes, bureaucrats and regulations; and a straightforward tax code that doesn’t burden some businesses to the benefit others.
John Brewer, Billings Area Chamber of Commerce CEO, said another business organization representing the area at the Legislature couldn’t hurt. There are issues the two organizations will find to support if the community benefit is there.
“The bottom line is we fully support organizations, such as this one that is developing, if what they’re supporting improves the community,” Brewer said.
The Billings Chamber has 1,250 members. Brewer said the organization surveys its members regularly to determine what the majority are interested in supporting. That input has resulted in efforts to improve commercial air service into Billings, as well as a multi-decade plan to improve the downtown and hospital corridor.
The support for a local option sales tax legislation is focused on giving community voters the right to decide whether a sales tax is needed, Brewer said. The Billings Chamber has not supported a bill to create a local sales tax without approval by voters.